How Gardening Helped This Father of Three Find His Center

It helps me stay calm in my busy and stressed-out world.

Welcome to “How I Stay Sane,” a weekly column where real dads talk about the things they do for themselves that help them keep grounded in all the other areas of their life — especially the parenting part. It’s easy to feel strung-out as a parent, but the dads we feature all recognize that, unless they regularly take care of themselves, the parenting part of their life will get a lot harder. The benefits of having that one “thing” are enormous.

Johnny Jones, a 46-year-old dad of three, works two jobs and needed a release. So, he decided to try gardening. That was a decade ago. These days, he spends about five hours a week tending to his vegetables. He says the silence and serenity of the garden helps him feel prepared for the stress of his other job as a Lieutenant at a fire station in Hazel Crest, Illinois. Here, Jones explains why tending his garden makes him very zen.

I got into gardening 10 years ago. I started off planting smaller things — maybe a tomato plant here and a tomato plant there. What drew me to it was the fact that my father-in-law always had a nice garden. My in-laws live in Indiana, and have a fairly big chunk of property — a couple of acres. He has this great garden, and we’d always get stuff from them. I’d say, “One of these days, I’m going to do that. I can grow that.” So I decided to do my own thing with it. I started off small, with a few tomato and zucchini plants, and it just grew from there. The year after that, I experimented with some different vegetables, and that’s how that all got going.

Gardening came quickly to me. It was also something that’s totally different from my job. I’ve worked two jobs for my entire career, pretty much. Getting an opportunity to get away from all that, it just seemed like, when I’d get out into the garden, my head was clear. I wasn’t thinking about anything other than how to get these plants growing. I’m a bit of a perfectionist with things to begin with, and I was able to put a lot of time and effort into that. The next thing you know, I’ve been out in the garden for hours. The time just goes so quick. But I always felt calm and relaxed.

I’ve always been an outdoors person. I don’t like being cooped up indoors. And gardening just gives me a sense of peace. There’s no timetable. I don’t have to rush anything. I can just get out there and check out how things are. Pull a few weeds. Make sure the water drainage is good.

Other times, I get frustrated, like if we had bad weather. I had a rabbit that bothered me for a couple of years straight. I couldn’t figure out how to keep the rabbit out of my garden. But compared to where I work, a busy station, we’re constantly moving and up for a lot of sleepless nights. I catch a lot of fire duty, so I’m constantly moving and on the go. Work is always: rush, rush, rush. I get in the garden and there’s no rush. I just do what I want and take my time.

The garden is a place that is totally different from my every day jobs. Both of them are very fast-paced and there’s a lot of stress involved, a lot of quick decision making. Gardening, you don’t have that. You have time to think things through. You can plan. You can just get out there and kind of take it easy at a nice, smooth pace. There’s no rush: If you screw up, nothing is at stake. It’s just a tomato plant. No one is going to have anything bad happen to them if you make a wrong decision. It’s kind of nice to just get out there. It’s totally different.

I’ll be out there by myself. Sometimes you just need that alone time. It does wonders. I spend about five, maybe six hours out there a week. That’s not as much time as I would like, but for now, It’s now just a matter of maintaining the plants. I just keep the weeds down and make a few ties here and there. It generally doesn’t take too long.

Right now, I’m growing a few tomato plants: the big boy tomatoes and cherry tomatoes. I have a few zucchini plants, cucumbers, and a wide variety of bell peppers. Some yellow ones, red ones, green ones, purple ones and an eggplant. That’s probably going to be enough, because this year, my peach trees are going to produce.

The best part of it all is just being able to see that I’ve accomplished something from the seed format. That’s pretty neat. That’s a sense of accomplishment. I started with a seed, dumped it into the ground, and it went from there. For me, it’s not so much about the food part or the vegetables that get produced. It’s really about getting opportunity to unwind.